Thursday, September 1, 2016
Bernart and the Music of Ideas
Bernart de Ventadorn’s songs deploy most of the more widely used troubadour conventions in a way that is masterly, while not strikingly original.  Many of his cansos are elaborately organized structures of words which can be understood almost abstractly regardless of their explicit themes. The reader or listener can relish the repetitions, marvel at bipolar oppositions balancing like aerialists, and admire tightly wound contradictions, all couched in the most melodious and graceful language. Some critics, failing to appreciate this artful poetic technique and seeking for prose inside the exquisite poetry, have quarreled over the insoluble question of what Bernart himself thought. From the structuralist point of view, the dance of conventions (which prove far more alive than they were once thought to be) are the most significant element in a poem like “Lo tems vai e ven e vire” (“Time comes and turns and goes”).
That very opening phrase presents a mystery. Does it mean that the flow of time (or “seasons”) simply approaches from the future, “turns” as it is experienced, and then goes or recedes into the past? But why use “turn” for the middle term? The apparent reversal between coming and going suggests a more subtle idea of the relativity of time, its subjective quality which might make it seem dynamic and mutable. Further, every line of verse, of which this clause is the first, “turns” at the end to become the next verse.
But as soon as the initial proposition has been declared, a suggestive set of oppositions that generates speculation about time’s river and poetry’s flow, the already rich set of concepts is suddenly thrown into doubt: “no n sai que dire” (“I don’t know what to say”). Of course this statement is itself paradoxical, since it appears in a poem, the most deliberate form of speech. 
Having first suggested that time’s arrow may be ambiguous, though somehow analogous to the loom-like weaving of lines of verse, Bernart then opposes statement and silence. This may seem the ultimate term for a sung utterance, but the poet tops this tense and dizzying series of polarities with a monad of absolute love. Yet in this dialectical environment every term summons its contrary, so Bernart’s next move is to posit an absolutely unresponsive beloved.  While he represents himself as the extreme of devotion in love-service, she is the exact opposite, altogether aloof. This makes his love a sort of absurdity, for which the poet censures himself in the third stanza, calling himself a fool.
These antinomies – the love which is not love and the speech which constantly threatens to descend into silence – continue in a symphonic play of concepts. In spite of the poem’s highly formal schematic matrix, the system is not in the end symmetrical. Though the poet threatens in the fourth stanza to cease his writing which, he says, cannot bring him joy, yet we see the text before us, decisive proof that he did indeed, after wavering, write. He presumably glimpses some possibility that the lady may ultimately be persuaded, or, by his own standards, he would have fallen silent.
Indeed, though he protests that his beloved is impossibly obdurate, in stanza six he declares that his suffering is only a prelude to his joy. Slyly, he cites scriptural authority suggesting a happier denouement, “a single day” that is “worth more than a hundred.”  Just past the poem’s midpoint the possibility of sexual love displaces the idealized love service that never requires a reward. What had seemed an ethereal “courtly” relation analogous to feudal vassalage becomes suddenly an arduous and demanding seduction strategy.
The seventh stanza reflects both sides of this new opposition. After saying that his devotion can never flag and comparing himself to a hollow straw in the wind, he grandly declares that he will not criticize her for her coldness, but the last line qualifies his submission: he expects that she will stop rejecting him in the future. This line leads to his first meditation on her body (“be faihz, delgatz e plas”) and the poem concludes with his prayer that God help him obtain the joy for which he has been waiting. The Biblical reference emphasizes the poet’s nearly blasphemous conflation of his sensual desire with the divine plan.
The formal play is so central to the piece, as formal play would be in a Bach fugue or a Kandinsky composition, that the thematic focus is blurred. Is the writer a faithful Christian or a libertine? A courtly lover under amorous discipline or a self-seeking cynic? Is poetry worth the utterance? These and other issues hover unresolved, not because the poet cannot be decisive, but because human consciousness is suspended between the carnal and the spiritual, between the ego and the other, between dominance and submission. The text’s consumer can hearken to the dynamic dialectic of such oppositions in Bernart and feel a resonance of similar tensions in all human consciousness, including those in other written texts and in the reader’s own mind.
1. In this he resembles Sonny Boy Williamson’s use of the conventions of the blues.
2. Of course, among the most time-honored rhetorical figures are those in which the writer claims not to know what to say. This includes the claim that one is incompetent at expression (such as “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking . . .”) or the claim that the topic is beyond language (“her beauty cannot be expressed”). These are varieties of ignoratio. Another related figure is the interruption of the flow of speech through uncontrollable emotion (such as “let me pause a moment, I can’t go on.”) This is called aposiopesis.
3. Schematically the reasoning is rather like the Buddhist sages analyzing the reality of the phenomenal world which, to simplify considerably, many deemed to both exist and not exist.
4. Apparently the poet had Psalm 84:10 in mind.